Sunday, August 9, 2015

A STERLING WOMAN IS SHE

                           

Sue Margolis unfurls a broad canvas in LOSING ME. She does it with elegantly and with bravado. Much as Pieter Bruegel the Elder's paintings of peasant life in Renaissance Europe, her novel compels the reader to look at beyond the sunny spaces and joyful feasts to find the dark corners most of us would prefer to ignore. In this, she is as fearless as her main character, 58 year-old special needs teacher Barbara Srirling—a telling name, that--who never misses an opportunity to do battle for a good cause, unless it is to save her own life.
Margolis bestows upon Barbara Sthe gift of illuminating numerous aspects of today's human experience—a war veteran's post-traumatic syndrome and its affect on his family, the terrors of approaching old age, the question of professional identity, the struggle of the economic underclasses, the dual burden of ageing adults who care for boomerang children and fragile elderly parents, the pitfalls of long term relationships, the matter of fidelity. The global environment, the class system, the callous attitude of politicians, violence against children and women. As abstractions, these make up an incongruous mix. In real life, which Margolis portrays deftly, it is all in a day's work.
LOSING ME is about more than travails and causes. It is about a woman whois trying to find her way through a complex world. Barbara is feisty and wimpy, caring and full of anger, clear eyed and obtuse, agentle and savage at the same time. So are real people.
Humor is an important element in LOSING ME. It can be tongue in cheek, such as Barbara's responses the social media, “Barbara's Facebook sidebar contained another 'fifty-nine next birthday' ad for 'cheap, no fuss funeral plan. Underneath was an invitation to take part in a medical trial aimed at detecting early-onset Alzheimer's. Then there were the plus-size clothing outlets pushing New Year's discounts. Zuckerberg knew she was a size fourteen because he had elves….peering over her shoulder as she typed.” She segues with an acerbic comment on another Facebook ad, “Cruises no matter why they were taken, were the first sign of the dying of the light and to be fought at all costs. (Elasticized waistbands, on the oter hand, had, since the arrival of her ample post-menopausal belly, become her secret pleasure.) “
Determined as she is to mock Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg—she eventually reaches the point where she replaces the Z in his surname with an F—Barbara is rather slow at directing her bile at those who really desrve it, such as horrible husband Frank. the typical humanitarian who is willing to risk life and limb to bring attention to so-called plight of the Palestinians, but who is incapable of engaging with individuals. He can make movies that show the suffering of poor people in the Third World, but close up, his self-absorption is staggering, his indifference to his wife's ill health and concerns is staggering. The best he can do when Barbara asks for his support during a crisis is to say,
“You are such a drama queen.”
Unlike her best friend Jean, Barbara does not seek solace in the embraces of paid escorts. No, she soldiers on, helping her narcissistic mother whose all encompassing love of her damaged husbnd, war veteran Stan, leaves no room for the needs of wee little Barbara, thus shaping her into a dual-personality fighter for rights of neglected children abused women even as she herself endures her husband's neglect and the bad behavior of her supremely entitled son. Her relationship with her daughter Jess is only marginally better. It involve self-sacrifice of the sort her own mother, Rose, refused to make for her. There, is one of the flaws in LOSING ME, in this not-subtle shades, no gradations the cliché mom who “never needed to work.”
To make Rose, who is as much a victim of the horrors of war as her PSTD afflicted husband, the cause of Barbara's inadequacies, is an error of judgment. It leads the reader to ask Margolis from whom Barbara got her love of social causes and her strength. Surely it was not her teacher, Mrs. Emmett, who saw her for a few hours during the day. To attribute it to a reaction to her mother's perceived neglect and alleged narcissism is way too facile and convenient.
A story that has so much realism fails when it lapses into the usual “mommie made me do it” mode. It fails when it does not provide a source for the main character's ferocious criticism of “hummusy mummies” who own Kegel balls, exchange air kisses, babble about their Christmas trips to Tuvalu, feed their kids breast milk parfaits, name their kids Atticus and Bryony and use—I will not go there—family cloth. The reader wonders to know why such a sterling characters compassion and understanding only extends to those materially poorer than she.

The imperfections in LOOSING ME are no reason to dismiss the excellent writing in most of of it. There are moments when Margolis makes excessive demands on plausibility—Rose, who “only loved Stan,” Barbara's lightning fast bonding with an abused, low-income woman and children, and her swift insertion into the deliberations of a wealthy family all have a fairytale air. But all in all, this is a story told honestly and with brio.

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